ACLU of Oklahoma challenging state's riot law and arrest of activists after 2020 protests

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The ACLU of Oklahoma Foundation has filed two federal lawsuits regarding rights of protesters, including one suit that challenges the constitutionality of the Oklahoma Riot Statute.

The lawsuits were filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City and allege constitutional violations occurred during the local June 2020 protests after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. The suits were filed on behalf of Sincere Terry, Mia Hogsett, Tyreke Baker, Preston Nabors, Trevour Webb and Austin Mack.

Protesters gather May 30, 2020, outside the Oklahoma City Police Department in Oklahoma City. The protest was in response to the death of George Floyd.
Protesters gather May 30, 2020, outside the Oklahoma City Police Department in Oklahoma City. The protest was in response to the death of George Floyd.

The suit challenging the state statute claims its definition of riot is "unconstitutionally overbroad and vague," and includes defendants Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.

"The Oklahoma Riot Statute … is rotten to its core," said Jared Carter, attorney and director of the Cornell Law School First Amendment clinic, during a virtual news conference Friday. "It criminalizes speech and expressive conduct that goes far beyond the limited exceptions to the First Amendment."

Prater told The Oklahoman on Friday he had not yet been served with the lawsuit. The attorney general's office did not respond to requests for comment.

A pickup drives through a group of protesters who shut down Interstate 244 during a rally May 31 in Tulsa, Okla. The march was to mark the anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 and to protest the death of George Floyd, who was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer.
A pickup drives through a group of protesters who shut down Interstate 244 during a rally May 31 in Tulsa, Okla. The march was to mark the anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 and to protest the death of George Floyd, who was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer.

ACLU, plaintiffs hope to rid Oklahoma of riot statute

Oklahoma's Legislature passed a bill in 2021 that, under the riot statute, added a misdemeanor for anyone unlawfully blocking a public street or highway. While this provision is temporarily blocked by a federal judge, the bill also granted immunity to drivers who injure or kill a pedestrian while "fleeing" a riot.

The statute defines a riot as “any use of force or violence, or any threat to use force or violence if accompanied by immediate power of execution, by three or more persons acting together and without authority of law.”

The ACLU and plaintiffs hope a judge will declare the definition unconstitutional, said Megan Lambert, legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, during Friday's news conference.

"Because the entirety of Oklahoma's riot statute relies upon that unconstitutional definition, the goal is to rid Oklahoma statute of unconstitutionally vague and overbroad criminal charges," Lambert said. "And in this case, that would mean the entirety of Oklahoma's riot statute."

Protesters charged with felonies in 2020 say their rights were violated

The other lawsuit lists the city of Oklahoma City, Prater, Oklahoma City police officer Thomas VanNort and 10 unnamed police officers as defendants.

The suit claims that the city, police department and district attorney's office violated plaintiffs' First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights after a confrontation with police officer Nicklas Wald while painting a street mural outside police headquarters.

City and police department spokespeople both declined to comment on the pending litigation.

People work June 23, 2020, to paint portions of Shartel Avenue, next to the Oklahoma City police headquarters.
People work June 23, 2020, to paint portions of Shartel Avenue, next to the Oklahoma City police headquarters.

On June 23, 2020, a group including the plaintiffs, except Mack, was painting a street mural outside police department headquarters. The suit alleges   Wald tried to drive his police vehicle past the protective barricades.

Some plaintiffs stood in front of Wald's car to keep him from moving forward, and Wald allegedly drove his car toward the group before leaving.

When attempting to file a complaint against Wald the next day, Terry, Baker and Hogsett were arrested on a disorderly conduct complaint and detained in jail for 10 to 15 hours, the suit alleges.

Plaintiff says her life was 'changed forever'

All six of the plaintiffs were later charged with felony incitement to riot, but the charge was removed for Mack once his attorney proved he had not been present during the encounter with Wald. The other five were arrested and detained with $200,000 bonds, which Black Lives Matter of Oklahoma City paid.

The felony charges were later removed, and the plaintiffs pleaded guilty to obstruction of an officer, a misdemeanor.

"After being incarcerated, my life changed forever," said one of the plaintiffs, Sincere Terry. "I became a forever target to the state of Oklahoma for standing up … But today I'm finally putting my foot down and ready to fight this fight."

The suit requests the city be kept from retaliatory targeting of protesters and the district attorney's office from prosecuting racial justice protesters for First Amendment protected speech.

Both suits request plaintiffs be awarded "nominal" damages plus attorney fees, costs and expenses.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma City 2020 protesters file suits against city, DA, state law